NOTE: “AMoS” stands for A Muse of Shadows, the working title for my novel in progress. In this and subsequent posts, I talk about the various sources for my initial ideas for the (still extremely unformed) book.
Before I committed myself to writing a novel, I spent a lot of mental energy pinballing between other projects, from plays (only a fraction of my ideas for which ever get written, much less produced) to role-playing games (usually massive, overambitious projects which never get kick-started, figuratively or literally) to podcasts. It’s that last pseudo-medium I want to write about here, because in a very circuitous way, it was my podcasting pipe dreams that handed me the plot to Muse of Shadows.
Like millions of listeners, I discovered podcasts in 2014 thanks to Serial, an addictive spinoff of This American Life which took all the guilty pleasures of True Crime mass market paperbacks and updated them for the internet age. Serial is an unsolved murder mystery, an expose of a frame-job, a journalistic rabbit-hole…in some ways, it didn’t even know what it was, since new evidence on its subject kept trickling in throughout the broadcast, changing the outcome. I got so hooked on Serial, I started going to the gym just so I had an excuse to wear headphones.
Whenever I get into something, I want to do something with it, find my own spin and run with it. I could record a podcast, couldn’t I? Easy-peasy. But I lacked the journalistic chops to make anything remotely like Serial. One subject I already knew a lot about, though, was Shakespeare. So I envisioned a series of faux-urgent, docu-gritty deep dives into my favourite plays, replete with forged found footage and interviews with characters. Was Horatio framed for Hamlet’s crimes? Was Iago really honest after all? How deep does Bottom’s dream really go?!?
It was a dumb idea. I moved on quickly. And while I waited out the haitus between seasons of Serial, my podcast tastes expanded in several directions. I lapped up geeky nostalgia through series like Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men; I cracked up repeatedly in grocery stores while enjoying the screwball literary comedy of Paul F. Tomkins’s Dead Authors Podcast, wherein H.G. Wells uses a time machine to pull authors into the present to answer questions submitted through Twitter; and finally, I learned that gamers were recording their role-playing sessions for public consumption. Now here, at last, was something I knew I could pull off.
I began to plan an RPG podcast. I had a swank microphone that could pick up 360 degrees around a tabletop. I had enough knowledge of audio editing that I could cut out all my “ums” and “uhhs,” and maybe add a bit of dramatic theme music here and there. I might be able to score some local sponsors — just enough to spring for beer and pizza, to lure in my friends each week. And best of all, I had friends with the right sort of chops — gamers who were also actors and/or improvisers and/or just plain shameless. We’d be clever and funny, and after a few of our adventures hit iTunes, we could set up a Patreon account and sit back as the microdonations rolled in.
To be clear: I was never naive enough to think I could make a living on podcasts. I also knew that there were already a LOT of gaming podcasts out there, some of which had institutional support from comedy networks or other, profit-minded arts enterprises. If this thing were ever going to take off, I reasoned, I’d need more than friends, pizza, and elbow grease; our podcast would need an angle to make it stand out from the crowd. Desperately, predictably, I turned back to Shakespeare. With a Bard-themed game, I thought, I could capture two geek markets. I even got as far as a terrific, ridiculous title: To D or Not To D.
Before my house of cards collapsed, I tossed one more level on top. Fantasy adventures combining Shakespeare characters from different plays sounded a bit too much like Kill Shakespeare, a comics series I’ve never been able to get into. But why limit ourselves to Shakespeare characters? I could ask my players (or my vast Twitter fanbase) which literary characters they’d like to see in a role-playing game. Of course, your Macbeths and Sherlock Holmeses would have a game-balance advantage over your Elizabeth Bennetts and Holden Caufields… At this point I realized that, in addition to all the work I’d have to put into designing, recording, editing, and promoting the podcast, I might have to do research too. And thus, To D or Not To D went to the dustbin, along with so many other ambitious follies.
It was only after I’d given up on the idea that a further wrinkle occurred to me. It probably owes some of its provenance to The Dead Authors Podcast, but at the time of its inception, it seemed genuinely new. What if, instead of telling an adventure story that featured literary characters working together, I told a story featuring their authors? Would A.C. Doyle be able to manifest some of his famous detective’s powers of deduction? Would Jane Austen pass her Diplomacy checks?
A further wrinkle: what if, instead of being able to channel their creations powers, they were somehow pitted against their creations? Betcha wished you hadn’t written quite so many kick-ass solider characters now, eh, Shakespeare? Hard to execute mechanically as a role-playing game, and perhaps too esoteric for a podcast…but this idea, the notion of pitting authors against characters in a team-based adventure narrative, formed the first kernel of A Muse of Shadows’s plot.